Keeping Them Out

I had trouble sleeping that night. I had just stolen my 15th child out of 16 attempts. I had also stolen more than a hundred laptop computers, a dozen palm pilots containing sensitive student information, master keys, two maintenance trucks, and two really nice John Deere tractors (it’s so easy when people leave the keys in the ignition). It can be disturbing to see how easy it can be to gain access to valuables, sensitive information, and even children in schools. Fortunately, this school system now has much improved access control because they were willing to test their actual level of access control with an external Red Team assessment.

Periodic incidents remind us how important school access control is. An intoxicated man found one exterior door unlocked at a Canadian Montessori school. Next, he found a young girl alone and unsupervised and raped her.  Similar tragedies have unfolded at schools in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the globe. A third grader was murdered by an intruder in a school in Holland last year, and in the U.S., a little girl suffered brain damage after a dangerously mentally ill individual entered her Georgia classroom and struck her in the head with a metal hammer a few years ago. Children have been signed out of schools by unauthorized individuals and murdered. Sexual assaults by students have occurred in not only high schools, but in middle and elementary schools during school hours. Unfortunately, access control is a critical issue for today’s public, charter, and independent schools. Are your schools ready for a visit by an individual who intends harm?  Meaningful access control is within reach for any K-12 school, though it is more difficult for some schools than for others to achieve.

Inconvenience, expense, objections from staff, students, and parents to access control efforts are often obstacles for achieving good access control. Though all of these concerns are legitimate and must be considered, when someone visits harm upon a staff member or student due to poor access control, school officials own the results morally and sometimes legally.

Fortunately, modern security technology available today provides more cost effective solutions to help make achieving access control easier. For example, several vendors offer robust visitor screening systems at reasonable prices to help make the task of checking in visitors easier and faster while checking databases of known sex offenders for legal restrictions from entry and other court orders. The better systems also capture information from the visitor’s driver’s license automatically. Chief Alan Bragg of the Spring (TX) Independent School District Police Department reports tremendous success with this type of system. There are a number of superb access control products that can make it easier to improve access control for schools. Of course, people have to be convinced to use these technologies properly to obtain maximum benefit.
School Design
Good school design concepts can go a long way to improve access control. The Indianapolis Public School System coordinated a training session for their facilities personnel, key administrators, and area architects to improve access control for future construction projects and renovations. The improvements in school design and cost reductions will more than offset the cost of training. Schools and school systems should require architects to have formal training in CEPTD (crime prevention through environmental design) to work on their renovation and new construction projects. Making this requirement part of the bid process will result not only in better access control, but in better schools as well.

Layered Access Control
The first consideration for access control is the concept of layered access control. The assumption should be that in some cases, individuals can breach any layer of the access control system and that multiple layers make it more likely violators will be identified. When clients contract us to perform simulated passive non-threatening abductions, simulated thefts of computers, master keys, sensitive information, vehicles, children, and other valuable assets from schools, we look for gaps just like actual offenders do. I once easily defeated a $1M access control system at a school board office because of simple gaps rendering the technology nearly useless. I have also been quickly caught by elementary school teachers, custodians, food service employees, and even elementary school students who were active and alert parts of school access control systems.
Off-Campus Access Control
The first layer of access control actually begins in the neighborhood surrounding the campus. School resource officers, school district police officers, school employees, area residents, and local law enforcement officers should all be engaged in actively screening for suspicious persons and vehicles in the neighborhood surrounding a school. Physical alterations such as trimming vegetation to a seven-ft. height in the woods behind a school can help improve access control. 

Access to Campus
The next layer involves access control to the campus grounds and parking areas. Appropriate measures can range from defining boundaries to high-tech access control systems at every pedestrian and vehicle entry point, combined with properly designed fencing. When fencing is used, wrought iron or aluminum fencing is preferable to chain link for most applications at schools.

Building Access
The basic concept is to control building access and provide a system to screen out and, if necessary, keep out potentially dangerous individuals. Again, modern access control technology can make it much easier to accomplish this as long as people are properly instructed to help the system work. For schools lacking funding for access control technology, a great deal of improvement can be accomplished through education and proper maintenance of existing hardware.
Visitor Screening
Building access control is nearly useless if visitors are allowed into a school based on trust. Reliable school access control normally requires photo identification checks of visitors wishing to enter a school, whether they indicate the desire to sign out students or not. Students can be abducted by people entering schools under a pretext. In one case, two elementary students were abducted by a non-custodial parent wearing a delivery service uniform. In the Middletown (NY) School System, security director Ken Haverlan boosts security by having his personnel use identification checking guides to verify out of state licenses. This adds an additional layer to their access control in the event someone tries to use a fake driver’s license to gain access to a school.

Visitor Badges
Visitor badges should not be reusable, nor should they be stored in a location where they can be stolen, such as the front counter. Visitor sign-in books should also be stored in a secure fashion. Visitor badges should allow a staff member to tell at a glance that they are current either through large-font dates or, even better, through a time expiration feature.
Staff Identification
All school employees should be required to wear a photo identification badge at all times. Schools where I have been caught trying to simulate passive abductions of students have almost always been schools where staff rigorously wear identification badges. 

Student Identification

Student photo identification badges may be appropriate depending on local conditions. School administrators should weigh the value provided against time and cost. For example, a rural independent school with 200 students may not benefit as much as an urban independent high school with 2,200 students and several other high schools in the neighborhood.

Maintain Integrity

Many students and staff will readily open an exterior door for a stranger because it is the polite thing to do. The Buncombe County (NC) Public School System and Indianapolis (IN) Public School System have augmented access control measures by developing custom training videos to teach students and staff how to maintain integrity of layered access control.

Interior Access Control

After conducting an access control audit of all its facilities, the Evansville Vanderburgh (IN) School Corporation launched a district-wide initiative to improve internal access control. Understanding how unlocked rooms in a school can contribute to sexual assaults, thefts, arsons, vandalism, and truancy, Superintendent Vince M. Bertram and Coordinator of Security and Safety Gerald Summers have made interior access control a mission for the corporation’s 39 schools and support facilities. Though no incidents have occurred due to unlocked space in Evansville schools, students and staff have been sexually assaulted in unlocked areas in other schools around the country during the school day. More commonly, thefts, consensual sexual acts between students, and acts of vandalism occur in schools.

Every time I “steal” a child from an elementary school, chills run down my spine as I realize how a trusting and innocent child proudly taking me on a tour of their school would just as quickly trust a child molester. Though such occurrences are extremely rare, they happen enough to make it imprudent to fail to protect the precious lives of staff and students in our schools. The cost of poor access control can be high. As one administrator told fellow participants while fighting back tears at a school safety seminar, “we paid when we were sued, but we can never bring that little girl back.”

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director of Safe Havens International Inc.  He has tested and evaluated access control systems in public, charter, and independent schools around the United States, Israel, England, and Vietnam. His free school safety newsletter is available at